17 Ancient Board Games: Historical Old World Gaming



Historical board games have stood the test of time and continue to captivate people of all ages. From the strategic gameplay of Senet and Mehen in Ancient Egypt to the spiritual significance of The Royal Game of Ur, these games have endured for centuries and remain popular today. This article will explore the background and gameplay of various ancient, old-world board games, highlighting their importance in both history and recreation. By delving into the enduring appeal of these games, we can gain a deeper understanding of the human desire for competition, strategy, and social bonding. Read on and learn about how these games have literally changed human history!

Board Games Of Ancient Times

Ancient game boards have been enjoyed for centuries and offer a glimpse into the cultures and societies of the past. These games were not only sources of entertainment but also served as tools for teaching and social bonding. Their enduring popularity is a testament to their timeless appeal and the importance of play in human culture.

Option #1. Senet

Senet, a board game that originated in ancient Egypt, has a long and storied past dating back to at least 2620 BCE. The game involves a playing board with 30 squares and 10 or more pawns, and has been found in various forms throughout Egyptian history, from depictions on tomb walls to actual game boards found in burials. Despite its lengthy history, there seems to be little variation in key components, as evidenced by the various senet boards discovered by archaeologists.

The rules and gameplay of senet are somewhat of a mystery, as the game fell out of use after the Roman period. However, historians have attempted to reconstruct the rules based on fragments of texts spanning over a thousand years. These rules may have changed over time, but they have been adopted by modern sellers of senet sets. The board itself was typically made of wood, ivory, faience, or a combination of these materials, and featured a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows of ten.

Senet held significant cultural importance in ancient Egypt and was even depicted in ancient texts, such as Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, where the deceased plays the game against an unseen opponent. A papyrus dating from approximately 1250 – 1150 BCE also shows a lion and a gazelle playing senet. By the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BCE), the game represented the concept of the ka passing through the duat, with the spaces on the board connecting the individual to different stages of their lives. This connection is made in the Great Game Text, which appears in several papyri, as well as the appearance of religious symbols on senet boards themselves.

Senet is a captivating game with a rich history and cultural significance in ancient Egyptian society. While the exact rules of play may remain a mystery, the game’s enduring popularity and cultural importance make it a fascinating subject for historians and board game enthusiasts alike.

Option #2. The Royal Game of Ur

The ancient game known as The Royal Game of Ur has intrigued people for centuries. Its rich history dates back to the early third millennium BC in ancient Mesopotamia and it was widely popular across the Middle East, even reaching as far as Crete and Sri Lanka.

The Royal Game of Ur is a two-player strategy race board game that belongs to the tables family of games. It was rediscovered by Sir Leonard Woolley, an English archaeologist, during his excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur between 1922 and 1934. Other archaeologists have since found copies of the game across the Middle East. One of the game boards held by the British Museum dates back to c. 2600 – c. 2400 BC, making it one of the oldest game boards in existence. The game was enjoyed by people of all social classes and was played with two sets of seven game pieces, similar to those used in draughts or checkers. One set of pieces is white with five black dots, and the other set is black with five white dots. The game board consists of two rectangular sets of boxes, one containing three rows of four boxes each and the other containing three rows of two boxes each, joined by a “narrow bridge” of two boxes.

The gameplay of The Royal Game of Ur involves a combination of luck and strategy. Players roll a set of four-sided, tetrahedron-shaped dice to determine their movements. Two of the four corners of each die are marked, and the other two are not, giving each die an equal chance of landing with a marked or unmarked corner facing up. The number of marked ends facing upwards after a roll of the dice indicates how many spaces a player may move during that turn. The objective of the game is for a player to move all seven of their pieces along the course and off the board before their opponent. When a piece is on one of the player’s squares, it is safe from capture. However, when it is on one of the eight squares in the middle of the board, the opponent’s pieces may capture it by landing on the same space, sending the piece back off the board so that it must restart the course from the beginning. Players must be mindful not to have too many pieces on the board at once, as it can hinder their mobility.

During its heyday, The Royal Game of Ur held spiritual significance, with events in the game believed to predict a player’s future and convey messages from deities or other supernatural beings. Over time, the game became steeped in superstition, with the tablet of Itti-Marduk being a prime example. Despite its ancient origins, the game continues to captivate people to this day and that’s what makes it an easy addition to our list.

Option #3. Mehen

Are you familiar with Mehen? This board game was played in ancient Egypt and remains an enigma to this day. The game was named after a snake deity in ancient Egyptian religion and dates back to around 3000 BC. The board features a coiled snake divided into rectangular spaces, with different numbers of segments on various boards. Archaeological evidence suggests that lion- or lioness-shaped pieces, in sets of three to six, and small spheres may have been used as playing pieces.

Unfortunately, the rules and gameplay of Mehen are entirely unknown. The variability of the number of segments on the board suggests that the number of segments was of little importance to the game. It’s possible that the game was a race game, where players moved their pieces along the snake’s body to reach the end. However, this is just a theory.

Mehen was not only played in Egypt but also in other cultures. It has been found alongside other boards displaying the game of senet at Bab ‘edh Dhra and in Cyprus. In Cyprus, it sometimes appears on the opposite side of the same stone as senet, and those from SotiraKaminoudhia, dating to approximately 2250 BC, are the oldest surviving double-sided boards known. Mehen survived in Cyprus longer than in Egypt, demonstrating that the game was indigenized upon its adoption into the island’s culture.

Mehen remains a mysterious ancient Egyptian board game that we know very little about. However, its existence and variations in other cultures highlight its significance in history. Perhaps one day, we’ll uncover more information about the rules and gameplay of Mehen. Until then, we can only imagine what it was like to play this ancient game.

Option #4. Hounds and Jackals

The game of Hounds and Jackals has piqued the interest of historians and archaeologists due to its intriguing history. This game, also known as Dogs and Jackals or Fifty-Eight Holes, was discovered by Howard Carter in a Theban tomb from the reign of Amenemhat IV in the 12th Dynasty. The game set found in this tomb is one of the most well-preserved examples and is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The board for this game consists of two sets of 29 holes, with small sticks serving as gaming pieces that feature either jackal or dog heads. The objective of the game was to start at one point on the board and reach the slightly larger endpoint. The game originated in Egypt around 2000 BC and was primarily popular during the Middle Kingdom.

The name of the game comes from the shapes of the pegs, with one player’s pins carved as hounds and the other player’s pins carved as jackals. The game was also referred to as 58 Holes due to the 58 holes on the board (29 on each side). The original name of the game remains unknown, and different archaeologists use different names.

The sticks used in the game were made from costly materials such as ivory, silver, and gold, as evidenced by findings at some archaeological sites. Wood was also used for ordinary pegs, but these examples would not have survived. While other animals such as horses, cats, or sparrowhawks have been found on the top of the pegs, no such pieces have been discovered in the Near East, where the game was played from the beginning of the second millennium until the middle of the first millennium.

Hounds and Jackals spread to Mesopotamia in the late 3rd millennium BC and remained popular until the 1st millennium BC. The game was also played in Assyria, Israel, Anatolia, Babylon, and Persia. During archaeological excavations, boards were found from remains of Assyrian merchant colonies in Central Anatolia dating back to the 19th-18th centuries B.C. It is possible that these boards were brought to Anatolia from Mesopotamia by Assyrian traders or through the connection between Cappadocia and Egypt.

Hounds and Jackals shares similarities with other old-world board games such as Twenty Squares or Royal Game of Ur and Senet. All of these games are race games for two players, with the winner being the first to reach the endpoint. Compared to Senet, both games were found in Egyptian tombs and dated back to the third millennium BC, and sticks were used in both. Twenty squares was widely spread to other territories such as Israel, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Cyprus as hounds and jackals games. Dice, stones, or other pieces were also used in this game to determine who should start first.

Option #5. Pachisi

Pachisi, a board game with origins in Ancient India, has become a global pastime. The game is also known as Twenty-Five, which is derived from the Hindi word paccīs, meaning “twenty-five,” the highest score that can be thrown with the cowrie shells used in the game. This section will explore the game’s description and history, its gameplay and rules, and its importance in Indian culture.

The game of Pachisi is played on a board shaped like a symmetrical cross, with cowrie shells determining the number of spaces a player’s pieces can move. The game has been mentioned in the ancient text Mahabharata under the name of “Pasha,” and it is believed to have been played by Akbar, the Mughal Emperor, in a truly regal manner. The game was played on a board divided into red and white squares, and young slaves from the harem wearing the players’ colors represented the pieces.

Pachisi is a game for two, three, or four players, with four players usually playing in two teams. Each player has four beehive-shaped pieces, and the pieces of one player are distinguishable from another by their colors: black, green, red, and yellow. Six cowrie shells are used to determine the amount to move the players’ pieces. The objective of the game is to move all four of a player’s pieces completely around the board, counter-clockwise, before their opponents do.

Pachisi has a significant place in Indian culture and has been played for centuries. The game’s role in the history of India still remains to be investigated, but it is often assumed that the gambling game that plays so significant a role in the Mahabharata, the classical literary epic, is pachisi. The game has been played by royalty and commoners alike and has been a source of entertainment and socialization. Pachisi has also been a way to teach strategy, patience, and decision-making skills to children and adults alike.

In conclusion, Pachisi is a timeless classic that has been enjoyed by generations of people in India and around the world. Its simple yet challenging gameplay, along with its cultural significance, has made it a beloved game for centuries. Whether played for fun or as a way to teach important life skills, Pachisi remains a game that continues to captivate players of all ages.

Option #6. Go

The board game Go, also known as weiqi in China and baduk in Korea, has a long and captivating history that spans many centuries. It is believed to have originated in China, with the earliest written reference dating back to the 4th century BCE. Initially played on a 17×17 line grid, a 19×19 grid became standard during the Tang Dynasty. Legends say the game was created by the mythical Chinese emperor Yao’s counselor Shun for his unruly son, Danzhu. Other theories suggest the game was derived from Chinese tribal warlords and generals who used stones to map out attacking positions.

In ancient China, Go was considered one of the four cultivated arts of the Chinese scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting, and playing the musical instrument guqin. The rules of Go were passed on verbally, rather than being written down. Go was also introduced to Korea sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE and was popular among the higher classes. In Japan, the game became popular at the Japanese imperial court in the 8th century and among the general public by the 13th century. The game was further formalized in the 15th century.

Despite its popularity in East Asia, Go has been slow to spread to the rest of the world. It did not become popular in the West until the end of the 19th century when German scientist Oskar Korschelt wrote a treatise on the game. By the early 20th century, Go had spread throughout the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Go has had a significant impact on Eastern culture and has been enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. The rank system in Go indicates a player’s skill in the game, with kyu and dan grades being used to measure a player’s rank. The game has also been played competitively, with professional players having professional dan ranks. Despite its complexity, top-level amateur players have been known to defeat professionals in tournament play.

Option #7. Ludus latrunculorum

Ludus latrunculorum, also known as “the game of brigands” or “the game of soldiers,” was a well-liked two-player strategy board game that was played throughout the Roman Empire. However, due to the limited number of sources available, it has been challenging to recreate the game’s regulations and fundamental structure, leading to various interpretations of the existing evidence.

Latrunculi is thought to be a variation of earlier Greek games such as Petteia, pessoí, psêphoi, poleis, and pente grammaí. These games were mentioned as early as Homer’s time, and according to Plato, they originated from Egypt. In ancient Egypt, a draughts-like game called Seega was played.

The first reference to latrunculi among the Romans was made by Roman author Varro, who compared the grid used for the game to the grid used for presenting declensions. Additionally, an account of a game of latrunculi was given in the 1st-century AD Laus Pisonis.

Writers such as Martial and Ovid also alluded to the game, providing valuable evidence about the method of capture used in the game. In the game, pieces could only move one space per turn, and they could jump over other pieces into an empty square beyond.

The last mention of latrunculi from the Roman period is in the Saturnalia of Macrobius. However, the game continued to be mentioned in later works such as Ruy López de Segura’s classic 1561 work Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez and Philidor’s classic 1774 work “Analysis of the Game of Chess.”

Regarding gameplay and rules, the two players agree on the number of pieces, which can range from at least 16 to not more than 24 for each player. The board size can vary, but a normal checkerboard with 8×8 squares is commonly used. Pieces such as coins or hemispheres with different sides that can be flipped are used.

Overall, while the scarcity of sources has made it challenging to fully reconstruct the game’s rules and structure, the history and gameplay of Ludus latrunculorum offer valuable insights into the board games played during the Roman Empire.

Option #8. Nine Men’s Morris

A captivating board game known as Nine Men’s Morris has been played for centuries, tracing back to the Roman Empire. This game has had various names such as nine-man morris, mill, mills, the mill game, merels, merrills, merelles, marelles, morelles, and ninepenny marl. In North America, it is also referred to as cowboy checkers, and sometimes, its board is printed on the reverse side of checkerboards.

This game is a solved game, which means that its optimal strategy has been computed. It has been demonstrated that with perfect play from both players, the game ends in a draw. The Latin word merellus, which means ‘gamepiece’, could have been corrupted in English to ‘morris’, while miles is Latin for soldier. Three primary alternative variations of the game are three, six, and twelve men’s morris.

The board comprises of a grid with twenty-four intersections, or points. Each player has nine pieces, or men, usually colored black and white. Players aim to create ‘mills’ – three of their own men lined up horizontally or vertically – allowing a player to eliminate an opponent’s man from the game. A player wins by reducing the opponent to two men or by leaving them without a legal move.

The game progresses in three phases. The first phase starts with an empty board. The players decide who goes first and then take turns. During the first phase, a player’s turn involves placing a man from their hand onto an empty point. If a player can place three of their pieces on contiguous points in a straight line, vertically or horizontally, they have formed a mill, which permits them to remove one of their opponent’s pieces from the board.

Once all men have been placed, phase two begins. Players continue to alternate moves, this time moving one of their men to an adjacent point each turn. A piece may not “jump” another piece. Players continue to try to form mills and remove their opponent’s pieces as in phase one. A player can “break” a mill by moving one of his pieces out of an existing mill, then moving it back to form the same mill a second time (or any number of times), each time removing one of his opponent’s men.

When one player has been reduced to three men, phase three begins. When a player is reduced to three pieces, there is no longer a limitation on that player of moving to only adjacent points: The player’s men may “fly” (or “hop”, or “jump”) from any point to any vacant point. This variation was introduced to compensate when the weaker side is one man away from losing the game.

Nine Men’s Morris was prevalent in Italy, France, and England during the Middle Ages but was obsolete by 1600. This board game is still played in some parts of the world, including rural South Africa, where it is known as mor.

Option #9. Knossos Game

The Minoan civilization’s Knossos Game, also known as Zatrikion, is a captivating archaeological find. Arthur Evans discovered this one-of-a-kind game board during the excavation of Knossos, and it is now preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. The board is rectangular and made of a wooden base with valuable materials such as ivory, rock crystal, glass paste, gold, and silver. Additionally, four cone-shaped ivory pieces were found next to the board, which were likely part of the game.

Dating back to the second palaces, between 1700 and 1500 BC, the Knossos Game is one of the world’s oldest board games. The game board itself is a mystery and a unique find, intriguing archaeologists and historians alike for years.

Although the gameplay and rules of the Knossos Game are not entirely known, experts have made some conjectures based on similar games from the ancient world. According to H.J.R. Murray, the Knossos Game is a board game of the same family as the Royal Game Board found at Ur. The similarities between the two boards are close enough to establish their identity and even to conjecture how the game must have been played.

The Royal Game Board found at Ur is a race game where pieces are entered, sent across the bridge, around the upper track, and off again. The Knossos Game is believed to be a similar race game, where players move their pieces around the board to reach the end. The rules of the game are still a mystery, but it is believed that the game was played with tetrahedral “dice,” four of which give throws from 0 to 4.

The Knossos Game is a fascinating and mysterious object that has captivated experts for years. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is one of the oldest board games in the world, and its mystery lies in the fact that the gameplay and rules are not entirely known. Despite this, the Knossos Game remains a captivating artifact that provides insight into the ancient world’s love for board games.

Option #10. Patolli

Patolli, also known as patole, is an ancient board game that originated in America. This game of chance and strategy was enjoyed by both the commoners and nobles, including Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, the Aztec emperor. Patolli and its variations were played by different pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures such as the Teotihuacanos, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans. The game was also popular among other Mesoamerican groups, including the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.

Patolli is a game of both racing and warfare that heavily relies on gambling. Before starting the game, players would examine each other’s items available for betting, which could include anything from blankets, maguey plants, and precious stones to gold ornaments, food, homes, family, or even freedom. The game board consists of 52 squares arranged in an “X” shape, and the game pieces are six blue and six red pebbles. Each player controls one set of game markers.

At the start of the game, each player must have an equal number of items to bet, typically six, since each player has six markers. Once the players agree to play, they invoke the god of games, Macuilxochitl, to prepare themselves.

To determine the number of spaces to move their markers, players toss five black beans, each with one side marked with a hole. If one bean lands with its hole face up and the others face down, the player can place one of their markers on the starting square. If a player already has a marker on the board, they can move it forward the same number of spaces as the number of holes showing on the toss. However, if a toss shows five holes, the player can move their marker ten spaces forward. Players cannot move a marker onto a space already occupied by another marker. If a player cannot move any markers, they lose their turn.

Traditionally, the game board was painted with liquid rubber on a leather sheet or straw mat and decorated with colored dye, or carved into a tabletop or the floor. The goal of Patolli is to move all six game pieces to the end of the board, which is composed of specially-marked squares. The first player to get all their markers to the end square wins the round.

Option #11. Backgammon

For centuries, Backgammon has been a captivating board game played by two individuals. Its roots can be traced back to ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, where it was part of a vast array of table games. In 17th-century England, the earliest record of Backgammon emerged as a variation of the popular medieval Anglo-Scottish game of Irish.

The game of Backgammon requires a combination of luck and strategy, as players maneuver their fifteen pieces around the board and aim to be the first to bear them off. The pieces move along twenty-four points based on the roll of two dice, and players must select from a variety of options for moving their pieces while anticipating possible counter-moves from their opponent.

Backgammon is not solely a game of chance, as the superior player will accumulate a better record over a series of games. With each dice roll, players must make strategic decisions and anticipate their opponent’s moves. The optional use of a doubling cube adds an extra layer of excitement to the game, allowing players to raise the stakes.

The history of Backgammon is intriguing and extensive. It rapidly spread throughout Europe in the 19th century, surpassing other table games such as Trictrac in popularity. In America, the doubling cube was introduced, adding a new level of excitement to the game. In other parts of the world, different table games like Nard or Nardy are more well-known.

Backgammon is a game that has withstood the test of time. It is a game of skill, strategy, and luck that has entertained individuals for centuries. Whether you are a seasoned player or a beginner, Backgammon is a game that is sure to provide hours of enjoyment and excitement.

Option #12. Checkers

Draughts, also known as checkers, is a timeless board game of strategy that has been played for centuries. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient Egyptian game of Alquerque, which involved moving pieces diagonally on a board and capturing opponent pieces by jumping over them. As time passed, the game evolved and spread to different parts of the world, with variations in the board size, number of pieces, and rules.

Checkers is a game that is both simple and challenging, making it a popular choice for players of all ages. The game is played on a checkered board with pieces that move diagonally and capture opponent pieces by jumping over them. The objective of the game is to capture all of the opponent’s pieces or block them from making any more moves.

Today, checkers is a beloved game played in various forms around the world. American checkers, also known as English draughts, is the most popular version of the game in Anglophone countries and is played on an 8×8 checkerboard. Russian draughts and Turkish draughts are also played on an 8×8 board, while International draughts is played on a 10×10 board and is widely played in many countries worldwide.

Despite the differences in the game’s variations, the fundamental rules remain the same. Players take turns moving their pieces diagonally to an adjacent unoccupied square, with mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces. Only the dark squares of the checkerboard are used, and a piece can only move diagonally into an unoccupied square. When a man reaches the farthest row forward, it becomes a king and gains additional powers, including the ability to move and capture backwards.

Option #13. Mahjong

Mahjong is a game that uses tiles and has its origins in China during the 19th century. It has since become a worldwide phenomenon, with four players typically participating, although some regions have three-player variations. The game is a combination of skill, strategy, and luck, much like the Western card game rummy. The game is played using a set of 144 tiles that are based on Chinese characters and symbols, although there are regional variations that may exclude or add unique tiles.

The game of Mahjong has a fascinating history that goes back to the Qing dynasty in China. Originally called “maque,” which means sparrow, the game was named after the sound the tiles made when they were shuffled. The game has since been adapted into a popular online game and has become popular in Western countries. Mahjong is widely played throughout East and Southeast Asia, with different variations having notably different criteria for legal melds and winning hands, scoring systems, and even extra rules.

In most variations of Mahjong, each player starts with 13 tiles. Players take turns drawing and discarding tiles until they form four melds and a pair using the 14th drawn tile to complete a legal hand. A player can also win with a small class of special hands. While there are many variations of Mahjong, most have some basic rules in common, such as how a tile is drawn and discarded, how a tile is taken from another player, the use of suits and honors, the basic types of melds allowed, how to deal the tiles, and the order of play.

Mahjong has had a significant impact on Chinese culture, especially in the realm of gambling. Since its inception, the game has been associated with gambling and has been known to cause addiction and financial ruin for some players. Despite this, Mahjong remains a popular pastime in China and other parts of the world. In recent years, the Chinese government has taken steps to crack down on gambling and limit the impact of Mahjong on Chinese society. However, the game remains an important part of Chinese culture and is still widely played today.

Option #14. Oware (Wari)

Oware is a captivating game of abstract strategy that belongs to the mancala family of board games. Its origins are uncertain, but it is widely believed to have originated in the Ashanti region of Ghana. The game is played globally with slight variations in the layout, number of players, and strategy of play. Oware is also known by different names in various regions, such as ayò, awalé, wari, and pallanguzhi.

To play the game, you need an oware board and 48 seeds. The board has two straight rows of six pits, called “houses,” and optionally one large “score” house at each end. Each player controls the six houses on their side of the board, and the score house on their end. The game begins with four seeds in each of the twelve smaller houses.

The goal of the game is to seize more seeds than your opponent. Since the game has only 48 seeds, capturing 25 is enough to win the game. The game starts with four seeds in each house. Players take turns moving the seeds. On a turn, a player selects one of the six houses under their control. The player removes all seeds from that house and distributes them, dropping one in each house counter-clockwise from this house, in a process called sowing. Seeds are not distributed into the end scoring houses, nor into the house drawn from. The starting house is always left empty; if it contained 12 (or more) seeds, it is skipped, and the twelfth seed is placed in the next house.

Capturing occurs only when a player brings the count of an opponent’s house to exactly two or three with the final seed they sowed in that turn. This always captures the seeds in the corresponding house, and possibly more. If the previous-to-last seed also brought an opponent’s house to two or three, these are captured as well, and so on until a house is reached that does not contain two or three seeds or does not belong to the opponent. The captured seeds are placed in the player’s scoring house (or set aside if the board has no scoring houses). However, if a move would capture all of an opponent’s seeds, the capture is forfeited since this would prevent the opponent from continuing the game, and the seeds are instead left on the board.

There are variations to the rule that applies, which may be one of the following: Grand Slam, Sowing Restrictions, and Endless Loop. A Grand Slam is capturing all of an opponent’s seeds in one turn. The proscription against capturing all an opponent’s seeds is related to a more general idea, that one ought to make a move that allows the opponent to continue playing.

Option #15. Tafl

Tafl, also known as hnefatafl, is a strategic board game that has captivated players for centuries. It originated in Northern Europe and was played on a checkered or latticed gameboard with two armies of uneven numbers. The game is believed to have evolved from the Roman game Ludus latrunculorum and was played in several countries including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Britain, Ireland, and Sápmi. Chess eventually replaced tafl in the 12th century, but the tafl variant of the Sámi people, tablut, continued to be played until at least the 18th century.

The rules for tablut were written down by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in 1732, and these were translated from Latin to English in 1811. However, the translation had many errors, leading to the creation of a modern family of tafl games with new rules to amend the issues resulting from these errors. Tablut is now also played in accordance with its original rules, which have been retranslated.

The term tafl means “table” or “board” in Norse, which is the original name of the game. Hnefatafl became the preferred term for the game in Scandinavia by the end of the Viking Age, to distinguish it from other board games. The specific name Hnefatafl possibly arose as meaning “board game of the fist” from hnefi (“fist”) + tafl, where “fist” referred to the central king-piece.

Gameplay and rules of tafl games varied, but all games involved a distinctive 2:1 ratio of pieces, with the lesser side having a king-piece that started in the center. There is some controversy over whether some tafl games may have employed dice. Despite the lack of complete, unambiguous descriptions of the rules, tafl games have continued to capture the imaginations of players throughout the centuries. The game offers an undeniable tactical and strategic exercise where the first mistake very often leads to defeat.

Tafl games were particularly popular in Nordic countries and followed the Viking civilization to other parts of Europe, primarily to the British Isles and the Viking country of Gardarike in what is now part of Russia. Today, many different versions of modern hnefatafl are in play – both online and on physical boards.

Option #16. Sugoroku

For centuries, Sugoroku has been a captivating board game enjoyed by many. Its roots can be traced back to China, where it was known as Shuanglu, before being introduced to Japan in the sixth century. The game comes in two forms: ban-sugoroku, which is similar to Backgammon, and e-sugoroku, which is similar to Snakes and Ladders.

Sugoroku has a long and fascinating history that spans centuries. Despite being banned several times due to its simple and luck-based nature, it continued to be played for gambling purposes until the early Edo era. However, the emergence of a new and fast-paced gambling game called Chō-han led to the decline of sugoroku’s use for gambling. Ban-sugoroku, the version similar to Backgammon, has since died out in Japan and most other countries, while modern backgammon with a doubling-cube still has some enthusiastic players.

Ban-sugoroku is played similarly to western table games, but with different rules and objectives. The game starts with the same position as Backgammon, but the aim is to reach the final space on the board, known as the goal. Players move their pieces by rolling two dice and moving the number of spaces indicated. If a player lands on a space occupied by an opponent’s piece, the opponent’s piece is sent back to the starting position. The game is won by the first player to reach the goal.

E-sugoroku, on the other hand, is a simpler version of the game with rules similar to Snakes and Ladders. It became popular due to the cheap and elaborate wooden block printing technology of the Edo period, with thousands of variations of boards made with pictures and themes ranging from religion and politics to actors and even adult material. This variation of the game remained popular in the Meiji and later periods and was often included in child-oriented magazines. Today, the word sugoroku typically refers to e-sugoroku, with many video games based on the game, such as Kiteretsu Daihyakka: Chōjikū Sugoroku, Sugoroku Ginga Senki and many more. It seems like this ancient game is here to stay!

Option #17. Snakes and Ladders

A popular board game enjoyed by children worldwide is Snakes and Ladders, but what many don’t know is that it originated in ancient India as Moksha Patam. This game was designed to teach children about right and wrong, with the game’s progression representing life’s journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes). The game emphasized destiny, unlike games such as Pachisi, which focused on a mixture of skill and luck.

This game is a simple race based on luck and is popular with young children. The size of the grid varies, but is most commonly 8×8, 10×10, or 12×12 squares. Boards have snakes and ladders starting and ending on different squares, both of which affect the duration of play. Each player is represented by a distinct game piece token. A single die is rolled to determine random movement of a player’s token in the traditional form of play; two dice may be used for a shorter game.

The game was eventually introduced to the UK in the 1890s and was sold as “Snakes and Ladders”. The basic concept was then introduced in the United States as Chutes and Ladders. Today, Snakes and Ladders is still a popular game around the world, especially in India, where it is still used to teach kids about good behavior. The game’s simple rules and colorful board make it a great way to introduce young children to board games.


Ancient game boards have played a significant role in human culture and society. From the Egyptian Senet to the Royal Game of Ur, these games have not only provided entertainment but also served as a means of social and cultural bonding. They have been a primary condition of human cultures, with animals even engaging in similar activities. Board games have been a starting point for complex human activities, teaching tools, and have even been used for spiritual significance. As we continue to evolve, it is important to remember the significance of these games and their impact on our society. They have been a constant throughout history and will continue to be a source of entertainment and cultural significance for generations to come.

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